The Core of the Sun

In the Finland of this novel by Johanna Sinisalo and translated by Lola Rogers, women are sorted during childhood into two groups: Eloi and Morlocks (named inspired by H.G. Wells). The Morlocks are the workers, free to live as they choose, although the life is hard. The Eloi are pampered and taken care of, taught to be perfect wives and mothers and to desire nothing other than to be those perfect wives and mothers. Education in anything other than domesticity is out of the question.

The plan is that, in time, breeding will win out, and the fertile Eloi will outnumber the sterilized Morlocks. It’s eugenics and social conditioning with a massive dose of Puritanism, because in this world, drugs and alcohol are forbidden. The only high available is through illicit use of capsaicin-laden chiles, also illegal but available on the black market.

The main character in The Core of the Sun is Vera, known to others by her Eloi name, Vanna. As a child, Vera was identified as an Eloi, but that’s only because she was clever enough to realize that she needed to mimic her sister, Manna, in order to stay with her. From an early age, Manna’s interests were stereotypically feminine, full of the qualities that the authorities wanted bred into their women. Because Vera hid her independence and intelligence, she was able to become an Eloi a sister to Manna, but now Manna has disappeared, and Vera has become a chile addict and seller, working alongside Jare, a man (or masco) who used to work on her family’s farm.

I read this book during a week full of news about the abuse of women, and much of what happened in this book made me think of the ways women are taught to accept abuse. The strictly patriarchal culture in this book shields women from any outside influences. It limits their options so that the only option for happiness that they see is love and marriage and babies and the only interests worth cultivating are those that will enable them to gain that happiness. It made me think of the time when my social circles included mostly conservative evangelicals and how often I heard that a woman’s primary joy and purpose was to be found in marriage. And I remember how miserable I felt that I had so little luck at dating. (When I left that culture, not dating much bothered me a lot less.)

It should be no surprise that the Eloi women don’t always get the happy endings they are taught to yearn for. They may get a wedding, but the husbands, who get their property, have no particular obligation to treat them well.

All of that made the world of this book feel incredibly real to me. One might question whether a whole country in today’s world could cut itself off the way this version of Finland does. (The book was first published in 2013 but is set in 2016 and 2017.) But I think about how strict fundamentalist communities feed themselves with their own media and books and music, and I can see it. The Finns in this book view the outside with suspicion, and when you hear that enough, you start to believe it.

One thing, though, that interested me was the use of chiles in the book. Why is this the addictive substance people turn to? Why not alcohol or pot or opiates? When Vera eats chiles, she responds to the pain and feels energized by it. There’s something rousing in it. This is a world where physical sensation is supposed to be immaterial, especially to women. Eating something spicy would give them enough of a jolt. And there is danger if they aren’t handled correctly.

Most of the story is told from Vera’s perspective, both in the present and in letters she writes to Manna. But we also set some of Jare’s memories, as well as excerpts from various documents about the novel’s society. This is a type of world-building that I enjoy, and there was a good mix here of story and setup. The ending of the book is a bit mystifying, and I’m not sure what I think of it, but the book as a whole is a good one.

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The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

complete storiesSometimes it happens that I’ll read something that I’ve seen on other people’s lists of The Greatest! of! All Time!, and for whatever reason (let’s face it, it’s because I’m a terrible person) I’ve dismissed the hype. How great could it really be, I tell myself. I mean, they don’t really mean the greatest. They’ve probably only read one or two novels, so obviously this is the greatest one. But then I read whatever it is, and usually — an embarrassing preponderance of the time — I realize that no, no actually, Don Quixote might really be the greatest novel of all time (except for The Story of the Stone) or whatever it is. They weren’t kidding. The hype was real.

So I’ve heard about Clarice Lispector for years. She’s this amazing glamorous hypnotic Brazilian author, she’s not like anyone else, her novels aren’t literature, they’re witchcraft, she’ll ravish you. I figured, meh. I’ve read a lot of good stories and these would probably be just fine. I got a gorgeous copy of the recent New Directions translation of her Complete Stories by Katrina Dodson, and I began to read in chronological order. The first few stories were definitely good, but I could take or leave them; they were a little overwrought for my taste. Then I began the collection called Family Ties, and my hair just about stood on end.

Take “The Imitation of the Rose,” for instance. This is told entirely from the perspective of Laura, a young woman who is waiting for her husband to come home. Slowly, over the course of several pages, it becomes clear that Laura is recovering from a mental breakdown, and she is holding herself rigidly to a routine so as not to allow her thoughts to drift in unhealthy directions. (For instance, her doctor told her to drink milk every day for her health, but she must not drink it obsessively at the same time, so she constructs an elaborate display of nonchalance as she… drinks it at exactly the same time.) Laura begins to look at a bouquet of roses she bought at the market earlier, and she is more and more entranced by their fresh, perfect beauty. She impulsively decides to give them away to a friend (again constructing a script for what she’ll say when she does it) and then immediately, bitterly regrets the decision; the roses are “the only thing that are [hers]” and she ought to be able to keep them! Slowly, her focus narrows and narrows on the roses she’s given away. When the husband comes home, his wife is sitting on the sofa waiting for him, “like a train that had already departed.” Now, this story sounds gentle and pretty — milk, roses — but it takes place not only in one claustrophobic apartment, but in one mind descending into madness. In some ways it reminded me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” only subtler. Creepy as hell.

Or “The Smallest Woman in the World,” also in Family Ties. This is about an explorer who discovers a tribe of people eighteen inches high. One of these people, the smallest of her tribe, is a pregnant woman. The story consists mostly of the reactions of people reading in the newspaper about this discovery, and it explores racism, sexism, colonialism (including the involvement of the church), dehumanization, and the complications of joy. It is one of the most startling stories I’ve ever read.

These stories are unbelievably inventive. They are about love and hate and families and magic and chickens, birthdays and marriage and murder and race and the family dog. They reminded me of Nabokov and Calvino, except for one thing: they are about women. These stories are about little girls, teenagers, young wives, old ladies, single women, widows, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, friends. There’s a young woman who hears two men on the subway saying in Pig Latin that they’re going to rape and kill her. There’s an old woman on her birthday, surveying her no-good family who have gathered to honor themselves more than to honor her. There’s a Puritanical woman who’s visited by an alien being from Saturn and gains sexual power from the encounter. These stories are troubling, strange, odd, powerful, marvelous.

Increasingly, they say more with less. There are more stories about animals, about silence. There’s a startling story about a first kiss that doesn’t even involve two people. Lispector writes moving, beautiful, dramatic, dazzling stories, but they are stiller and stiller towards the end.

In case you couldn’t tell, Clarice Lispector blew my tiny mind. I took about two weeks to read the entire collection of stories (the translation was divine.) I am so looking forward to reading one of her novels. I highly, highly recommend this collection, to dip in and out of or to read nearly at a sitting, as I did. Spectacular. Ravishing. Maybe even witchcraft.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 9 Comments

Super Black

super blackI don’t know about you, but I was one of the people who saw Wonder Woman on the day it came out in the theater. I was ready — beyond ready — for a superheroine, and I wasn’t disappointed. For this same reason, I’m already excited about Black Panther, which is coming out in February 2018. I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies, and it’s hard to think of one that stars a black superhero as the main protagonist. In fact, before I picked up Adilifu Nama’s Super Black, I’m not sure I could have thought of more than one black superhero, ever. (Frozone, anyone?) Now I can.

This isn’t a history of black superheroes in the comics. It’s an analysis of what those superheroes have meant, where they’ve come from culturally, and what impact they’ve had. Nama doesn’t talk about authorial intent. Rather, he comes from an assumption that superheroes affirm a division between right and wrong, and therefore operate within a moral framework. That means that black superheroes specifically symbolize American morality and ethics with regard to race. “They overtly represent or implicitly signify social discourse and accepted wisdom concerning notions of racial reciprocity, racial equality, racial forgiveness, and, ultimately, racial justice.” He also says that it doesn’t matter whether the character is well-written and well-fleshed out or poorly and sketchily done. To have a black superhero at all means innovation in racial representation, since a superhero is both a “colorblind model of racial reconciliation” who protects all groups, a position associated with the civil rights movement, and someone who accepts the use of violence as a practical means to ensure justice, a position associated with Black Power.

Some of the most interesting superheroes originated in the 1970s, as you might imagine. That’s when Luke Cage first appeared, and Nama points out that he is heavily linked to the blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. There were the interracial duo of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, who had serious discussions about race in the pages of their adventures. There was a cover featuring a boxing match between Superman and Muhammad Ali, evoking a decades-old anxiety about black boxers besting white boxers (and this time, a black Muslim draft-dodging boxer beating a white superhero who stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.”) There were black versions of white superheroes: a black Captain America, a black Wonder Woman, a black Nick Fury (did you know Nick Fury was originally white?) Later, black superheroes got away from protecting the ghetto and traveled through the universe and through time, like their white counterparts.

Nama looks at each of these iterations in its cultural context. For instance, he points out that Luke Cage’s origin story (a medical experiment in prison by a sadistic white prison guard) came in the context of a wave of prison stories by black activists like Angela Davis and George Jackson, and a strong desire for prison reform. Brother Voodoo changed to Doctor Voodoo (mirroring Doctor Strange) and got a makeover out of his embarrassing jungle-inspired getup after twenty years. The Falcon represents black upward mobility both in his regular identity as Sam Wilson, the educated professional social worker, and in his secret identity, as a black man who can fly.

This was a really interesting book to read. I got a huge amount out of it. Unfortunately, it’s written for an academic audience, and most of it is written in pretty heavy jargon-ese. I really wish Nama had written this to be a little more readable. However, if you think you’d like to burrow through it, it’s a short book with a lot of information to offer (and there are lots of pictures!) and especially in light of the sorts of movies I like to watch, I’m really glad I read it.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

The Shuttle

Frances Hodgson Burnett is best known for her children’s novels (none of which I happen to have read). The 1907 novel The Shuttle, however, is written for adults. Its subject—an abusive marriage—is a serious one, although it’s presented in such a way that readers feel confident that things will somehow work out, largely thanks to the novel’s plucky American heroine, Bettina Vanderpoel.

As the novel begins, Betty’s sister, Rosalie, is preparing to marry Sir Nigel Anstruthers, an Englishman looking to use his title to find a bride to bring him the wealth he needs. It doesn’t take long for the marriage to go sour. Cut off from her family in a foreign country, Rosalie is on her own until, after a decade of silence, her younger sister decides to find out what happened. When Bettina arrives at the run-down estate and sees her worn-out sister, she takes over, Flora Poste-style, getting things arranged just as they should be. But what will Sir Nigel do about it?

Hodgson gives a lot of attention to the difference between Americans and the English, noting especially the can-do spirit that Betty brings to the situation. At times, Betty’s perfection seems over the top, but Betty herself is so down to earth that I had to like her. There’s a whole subplot involving a spirited American typewriter salesman that is even more impossible to believe, but everyone involved in that plot is so pleasant that I couldn’t be mad at the story.

All this cheerfulness and goodness provided an important counterbalance to the nastiness of Sir Nigel. He is a villain through and through. But there’s comfort in how good everyone else in the book is. Most people in this book are fundamentally good, but the goodness shows less easily in some than others. Even those who seem like they might be foils to Betty end up allies.

One of the more interesting strands of the novel involves the use of money. Almost all of the book’s main characters are wealthy or formerly wealthy. And the rich in this novel are responsible for taking care of others. Sir Nigel’s irresponsibility doesn’t just hurt his family. It hurts his whole community. When the estate falls to ruin, there’s no longer any work for those in the village to do. As it turns out, a massive country estate creates jobs. But a responsible estate owner doesn’t just provide jobs. He or she also gives to those who can no longer work or provides aid to the sick. Wealth can be a source of great good, and this book shows how.

I very much enjoyed reading this. It gets melodramatic, especially toward the end, but I didn’t mind. I was glad to spend time in a world where, although evil is present, goodness has the real power.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 11 Comments

Lying Awake

lying awakeLying Awake is a short novel — under 200 pages — and it has a lot to say. Still, it manages to feel quiet rather than crowded, and measured rather than rushed. Quite an accomplishment for such a small book.

It tells the story of Sister John, a modern-day Carmelite nun living in a convent tucked in a corner of Los Angeles. When she first joined the community, she spent arid years waiting to feel God’s presence come closer, and, since she didn’t, she took it out in action, serving the other nuns with a fervor she couldn’t quite feel in her heart. But a few years ago, Sister John began to feel God’s love and closeness, first in small ways, and then in overwhelming ecstasies, causing her to fall up, like a stone into the sun. Nothing has ever been more certain, more fulfilling, or more joyful. Faith is the smooth path now, and she has written a successful book of poetry about her experiences. Everyone in the convent rejoices for her, even though every nun’s way is different.

When Sister John discovers that the headaches she’s been having are caused by a health condition that’s associated with religious fervor, though, she’s devastated. Was her closeness to God ever real? If she cures her illness, will she “cure” her faith? What is God’s love? What is medicine meant for? If she has to go back to the dry years, will she survive it? These questions, and many more, turn and return at the heart of this book.

Mark Salzman has a clear understanding of the kind of questions a faithful person might ask herself in this situation. Lying Awake is grounded in the evidence of the way of life of people who have dedicated themselves to faith and to living in community — not always the easiest proposition. There’s scripture here, and also history: Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Térèse of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and many others. Salzman doesn’t allow pat answers. Even the very end is, to my mind, ambiguous. But that’s faith and hope for you: if you know the ending, they aren’t necessary.

I’ve only given the bones of the book here. It has a lot more to offer, from Sister John’s relationship with her doctor to the rhythm of life in the convent. If this book sounds at all appealing to you, I do recommend it — you could read it in an afternoon, and it will tag along at your side for days, making you think about it at odd times. It did for me.

Posted in Fiction, Religion | 6 Comments

Before Lunch

before lunchThis is the seventh of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It’s been over a year since I’ve read one, mostly because they aren’t available at my library and I have to get them through interlibrary loan, and every time I remember to order one, I think the same thing: how could I have waited for so long? These books are utterly enchanting.

This installment, Before Lunch, is about Mr. and Mrs, Middleton, who live at Lavering, and Mr. Middleton’s sister, Mrs. Stonor, and her grown children Denis and Daphne, who have come to live in the Middletons’ guest house for the summer. Mr. Middleton is a self-important blowhard whose only redeeming quality is that he loves his wife very much. Mrs. Middleton and Mrs. Stonor are both intelligent and wise, things that don’t always go together in Thirkell’s books. They look out kindly for the well-being of the people they love, as the summer winds on toward the triumph of the Agricultural Show and the happy or unhappy union of… let’s see… I think at least four couples, depending on how you count. There is a wealth of minor characters, as well, all of whom are worth meeting, and several of whom I already knew from earlier books.

It is difficult to explain how wonderful this book is (and how wonderful Thirkell’s books in general are.) They are very funny, but they are not high-key farce. The prose bubbles along in a gentle way, never stressful or jarring, and occasionally something so funny happens that I can’t stop laughing: the ongoing feud between Lord Bond and his butler over the whereabouts of the piano key, for instance, or Miss Starter, who obsesses over her, and everyone else’s, diet:

‘That’s all wrong, Miss Starter,” said young Mr. Bond, who had been hoping for some time that his mother’s guest would choke on a fishbone and die. “What you ought to say is ‘I am not worrying.’ Keeps the old Ego in much better order.”

“Oh, is that what you do?” said Miss Starter.

“Well, not exactly. The fact is I simply don’t worry at all. It saves me a lot of trouble. More of those nice little new potatoes, Spencer. They look a bit young to have been killed, but they taste uncommonly good.”

Miss Starter said earnestly that they were poison, which caused young Mr. Bond to put six into his mouth at once, give a single chew and swallow them. Lord Bond, who came in just then from seeing about a drain down in the seven acre field, said talking of poison they had found a vixen dead down near the stream undoubtedly poisoned, and the question was who had done it.

“Miss Starter says it is potatoes,” said young Mr. Bond.

The very best thing about these books, though, is that they are not just sheer frivolity. There is real humanity, compassion, and sometimes even pain below the rippling surface. I adore these books. If you haven’t read Thirkell, and you want a real rest when you read, do try them. They’re wonderful.

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

Borne

Rachel is a scavenger who lives in the ruins of an old apartment building with Wick, a former employee of a biotech firm called the Company. The environment is a complete wreck. Rachel spent much of her childhood as a climate refugee, forced to leave the island where she grew up and then moving from place to place until her parents were gone and there was nowhere left to go. Now, finding clean food and water is a struggle, a struggle made worse by Mort, a giant (as in three stories tall) flying biotech bear who comes after anyone who crosses his path.

So that’s the situation when Rachel finds, buried in Mort’s coat, a weird plant-like creature that she decides to bring home. The creature, who she names Borne, turns out to be conscious and able to communicate. Rachel teaches Borne about the world, feeling a strong connection to him and a desire to nurture, despite Wick’s fear that Borne may bring danger to them both.

Danger does come, from many quarters. There’s a woman called the Magician who’s somehow connected to the Company, there are children trained to kill, and there are Mort’s proxy bears, able to get into places Mort can’t go. Borne proves to be helpful against some of these dangers, but there are still questions.

The world Jeff Vandermeer creates is complicated, and there’s a lot about it that still isn’t clear by the end of the book. But Rachel is focused on day-to-day survival, so it makes sense that she might not understand all the tech, beyond what it does, or all the inner workings of the Company and the society around it, both past and present. Vandermeer keeps us focused on her point of view, so there’s a lot we don’t understand. But we understand enough to appreciate how high the stakes are and how alone Rachel is, even when she has Wick and Borne as companions.

The action is slow to build, with much of the early part of the book focusing on Borne growing into himself. But there’s always menace around the edges, not just because of the violence all around but because Rachel and Wick have set up a life that simply isn’t sustainable in the long term. At some point, it will end. It’s just a question of how and when.

One of the book’s big concerns is what it means to be a person. That question is most obviously applied to Borne, as he seems to have a complete human consciousness but his form is nothing like a human’s. The world of biotech has made the distinction between animal and tech hard to discern. And sometimes the people act in ways that seem entirely inhuman. It’s a world where the usual definitions have broken down.

I’d like to be able to say that the book says something profound about the nature of humanity or of life but I don’t know that it does. Rachel’s history seems all too pertinent today, as the waters warm and the ocean rises. And I think there’s something in the question of how we treat those who are different, but potential dangers, like Borne. But none of this is particularly deep. To me, it’s mostly just a good, weird story. Not one that I loved, but one that interested me enough to stay with it and that surprised me several times along the way.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Little Dorrit (TV series)

little dorritRecently, my friend Laura loaned me her copy of the 2008 BBC production of Little Dorrit. I watched it over a couple of days — it’s 14 half-hour episodes — and thought I would just mention it here.

Little Dorrit is a spectacular novel, with dozens of characters. It’s criss-crossed with wonderfully complex themes of freedom and imprisonment, light and shadow, richness and poverty. In some ways it’s very like my favorites of Dickens’s novels, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and I think an argument could be made that it forms a kind of trilogy with those two. The adaptation (screenplay by Andrew Davies, who is usually pretty reliable) does a good job with a complex plot and the big cast, but a lot of these themes are muddied or lost. Still, I enjoyed the entire production, and if this is the sort of thing you enjoy watching, you probably will too.

Of course Davies makes changes to the novel in order to heighten the drama. (This is frankly one of my pet peeves in most adaptations of novels. Don’t get me started on the ways they… heightened the drama… in the Lord of the Rings films.) Rigaud, a villainous Frenchman, plays a much bigger role in the adaptation than in the book, possibly because his mysterious motives and sneering… er… Frenchness cast a shadow on everything he touches. Arthur Clennam is more heroic. Pet Meagles is more appealing and less insipid. Fanny is more outspokenly kind to Amy. In other words, people lose some of their chiaroscuro and become either light or dark — less subtle.

That aside, however, Davies gets a lot right. Amy’s kindness and loyalty in the face of her family’s monstrous ungratefulness hits all the right notes. The theme of hidden power is also deftly handled — that power rests in the hands of those who can maintain a serene and friendly outward appearance, despite the ruin and disgrace of those they touch. And Mr. Dorrit, the Father of the Marshalsea, is appropriately complex. The performances are terrific, from Claire Foy, Matthew McFadyen, Tom Courtenay, Eddie Marsan, and others. If you’re inclined to see this, I’d get the popcorn and settle in.

Posted in Bookish films, Classics, Fiction | 1 Comment

American Street

american streetFabiola was born in the US, but has grown up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, all her life. Now she and her mother are returning to the US, hoping for la belle vie — the good life. But despite preparing all their papers with infinite care, there’s a catastrophe. Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration, and Fabiola must go on to her aunt Jo and her three cousins in Detroit — at the corner of American Street and Joy Road — to fight to get her mother back, and to navigate her new life alone.

One of the things I liked enormously about this book was Fabiola’s strong voice and presence. A lot of the books I read about immigrants tend to hew more or less closely to a certain trope that implies that life in the old country was simple and easy, if poor, whereas life in the US (or England, or whatever) is complicated and dangerous and difficult. Why is this a thing? When Fabiola arrives in the US, she has already dealt with dangerous streets, gangs, drugs, boyfriends, police, working hard in school to get a good education, making friends, and standing up to mean girls. The context in Detroit is different, of course, but she handles herself with strength and poise. The really hard things are more like what you get with culture shock: none of the food tastes right, and she loses weight. The houses aren’t colorful, they’re all grey. It’s way too cold. And she misses her mother shockingly.

Another really interesting thing about this novel is the way it presents vodou. Fabiola’s beliefs are woven all through her life. She watches for the way the gods open doors and offer clues to what she should do. She makes a shrine to pray for her mother each night. When people ask, curiously, about “that voodoo stuff,” she explains matter-of-factly about what’s going on. There’s a stripe of what feels like magical realism right through the middle of this novel — Papa Legba is a character, sort of  — and it belongs here.

Ibi Zoboi’s American Street is billed as a young adult novel, but that’s mostly because it has a young adult protagonist. It’s stuffed with big emotions, subversions of ideas and policies, life-or-death decisions, plot twists, and a young woman at the center whose life in a new country is just beginning. Don’t expect a Disney ending, but expect to be satisfied (I was.) I enormously enjoyed this book, and definitely recommend it.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Contemporary, Fiction | 2 Comments

The White Album

One of the best books I read last year was Joan Didion’s essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I appreciated Didion’s keen observations and her blending of personal observation with commentary on the culture. It felt significant and hardly at all dated. I was excited to read more of her essays, hoping to gain insight into our recent past and enjoy some good writing. I’m afraid that The White Album was a disappointment.

Didion’s writing is as good as in the earlier collection. She’s great at picking up on telling details and painting a clear picture of a scene. But these essays felt slight, rarely delving into the personalities and places to present an in-depth portrait, as in her profiles of Joan Baez and John Wayne in Slouching. Instead, she flits from point to point, dealing glancing blows on her subjects.

The title essay is a good example of the technique. It’s meant, I think, to evoke the fractured mood of the 60s and 70s. She presents different vignettes—a criminal trial, a Doors recording session, Huey P. Newton, a packing list, the Manson murders, a broken ribs. Some of these are several pages long, but many are only a page or two. Sections, like the one on Newton, seem to be on the cusp of something interesting, but she never gets there. That’s how this whole collection felt.

There were some gems and some essays that were almost gems. I liked “In Bed,” about her experience with migraine. A lot of what she describes would be familiar to anyone who has suffered chronic pain and struggled to get people to understand just what it’s like. “Many Mansions,” about the California governor’s mansion, was entertaining. I wanted more of “Good Citizens,” another series of vignettes, this one about Hollywood political activists, Nancy Reagan, and the local Jaycees. The essay on “The Women’s Movement” was provocative, and although I didn’t necessarily agree with it, I was glad to get to something with a strong point of view.

Many of the essays focus on California life or on Didion’s travels. A few glance at quirky areas of interest—the Hoover dam or shopping malls. In a lot of cases, I think being 40 years distant from the subject matter was a problem. If there were some profundities between the lines, I was too far away to see them.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 7 Comments